Measure would teach English to foreign students

ENID, Okla.—A state lawmaker has filed legislation to create English immersion classes for Oklahoma public school students who do not speak English.

Rep. Mike O’Neal, R-Enid, has filed House Bill 2631, the Oklahoma English Immersion Act, which would feature sheltered English immersion classes to educate Oklahoma students who are not proficient in English.

“An education is probably the single most important accomplishment anyone can achieve,” O’Neal said. “I want Oklahoma to be a leader in educating children of other nationalities by teaching them the English language.”

Of Oklahoma’s 625,000 public school students, 38,800 cannot speak English or speak limited English, according to the Oklahoma Department of Education. Many of them are placed in special education classes, said Carolyn Crowder, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.

“That presents a couple of problems. First, it takes the teacher’s time away from special education students who really need it, and it’s the wrong place for non-English speaking students,” Crowder said.

“We need a program that emphasizes English proficiency and concurrently provides instruction in other curriculum,” she said.

O’Neal, a former classroom teacher, said the top two languages spoken by non-English speaking students in Oklahoma are Spanish and Vietnamese.

“Before 1991, fewer than one-third of the 50 states required any kind of assessment for the identification of students learning English,” he said. “All states are now updating requirements to include English language learning assessments.”

O’Neal said the money is available through the federal government for schools to fund bilingual education.

“I’ve been told there are some other federal grants available,” he said. “If it becomes an unfunded mandate, we will drop it.”

Some Oklahoma schools have already received federal money to teach English to foreign students, including Guymon High School, which has a large number of Hispanic students.

Enid Superintendent Kem Keithly said about 514 limited-English students attend schools in the Enid district, and the schools must hire bilingual teachers to work with them.

“There is no question kids with limited-English abilities need additional help for them to succeed in this country and in school. They must be pretty fluent in English,” he said.

“Funding is critical,” Keithly said. “But finding someone who can speak the language and also speak English is also difficult. It’s hard to find certified foreign language teachers.”

O’Neal said he is still working on the bill, which is scheduled to be heard Monday by the House Common Education Committee.

“My vision is that we will take them aside and immerse them in English while they are learning other subjects as well,” he said. “Once they can read the English language, they can do math, science and everything else.”

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